In death, Hugo Chavez is venerated and vilified

Hugo Chavez was a polarizing, outsized figure, and reaction to his death has been as sprawling and contradictory as his legacy is likely to be.

His passing was tearfully mourned by the poor Venezuelans he provided with free housing and health care, and cheered in Miami by those he drove into exile.

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Timeline: 12 key events from the life of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
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Timeline: 12 key events from the life of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

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Visitors at his mausoleum get to hear him talking, and talking, even as the country’s divisions deepen.

It was a preview, perhaps, of what Latin America and the world might say when Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Chavez’s political mentor and the man he once called “a father,” eventually departs. The 86-year-old Castro issued no statement or farewell letter Tuesday night, but the protégé he carefully cultivated as heir to his revolutionary ideology is now gone.

On Twitter and in official statements, leaders from Latin America and around the world offered condolences and tributes. As the region’s most vociferous advocate for Latin American integration, and biggest opponent of U.S.-backed free-trade policies, Chavez used his country’s vast energy reserves to forge ties with countries large and small.

“A great Latin American has left us” said Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, one of the figures who now succeeds Chavez as the new standard-bearers of the Latin American left.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff called Chavez “a generous man to all the people in this continent who needed him,” even if her government didn’t always agree with his policies.

For the nations that benefited most from Chavez’s largess — from Nicaragua to Cuba to the tiny Caribbean islands such as Dominica and Antigua that came to depend heavily on subsidized Venezuelan oil — his death Tuesday was a blow.

Like Venezuela, those countries now face an uncertain and perhaps wobbly future without Chavez and his highly personalized brand of oil-enabled populism. Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro said new elections would be held within 30 days, as the country’s constitution mandates, but no firm date was set.

( Read: Chavez successors likely to continue to use oil as political tool )

President Obama’s comments were forward-looking, as the White House issued a brief statement: “At this challenging time of President Hugo Chavez’s passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government,” the statement read.

“As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights,” it said.

Praise for Chavez’s poverty reduction efforts in Venezuela and elsewhere in the region was matched Tuesday by criticism of his autocratic style and economic mismanagement.

A statement from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said the country “deserves so much better than the socialist disaster of the past 14 years.”

“The Venezuelan people now have an opportunity to turn the page on one of the darkest periods in its history and embark on a new, albeit difficult, path to restore the rule of law, democratic principles, security and free enterprise system,” he said.

Chavez remained in power through a short-lived 2002 coup and handily won reelection three times, earning fierce loyalty from the poor Venezuelans who benefited from his brand of “21st century socialism.”

But his 14-year rule, said the U.S. organization Human Rights Watch, was “characterized by a dramatic concentration of power and open disregard for basic human rights guarantees.”

Still, Chavez had several defenders in Hollywood, and Oliver Stone, who interviewed the late Venezuelan leader for his 2009 film “South of the Border,” mourned him as “a great hero.” Sean Penn said he lost “a friend.”

“Poor people around the world lost a champion,” Penn said in a statement.

In Havana, the government of President Raul Castro declared three days of mourning, calling Chavez “a son of Cuba.”

“He understood deeply our struggles and our problems and did what he could to help, with extraordinary generosity,” an unsigned government statement read. “He was a true son to Fidel and a close friend to Raul.”

The Venezuela-based television network TeleSur — another creation of Chavez’s — showed one woman Tuesday night on the streets of Caracas, singing a tearful elegy. “Cemetery, cemetery,” she cried, “give us Chavez back.”

 
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